Attendees to Monday’s school board meeting were on the edge of decorum. Agitated, murmuring, and asking questions out of turn. There were strong statements of concern, with loud applause after those statements – as contrasted with polite applause after statements of congratulations and accomplishment.
There is a perception among at least some teachers that there are management problems in the district, that they are not being addressed, and that the board doesn’t want to hear about it.
My first school board meeting
I attended because I was angry. It is unfortunate that it took frustration and anger to bring me to my first attempt at civic responsibility. A nervous but enthusiastic rookie, at the very first meeting I attended, I rose to speak. I addressed the issue that roused me from slumber: the suspicion of very costly mismanagement at the district office. Judging by the applause and cheers I received, this concern was shared by many in the room.
However, the nerves I felt before and during my presentation never left me. I felt very uneasy about the unpleasant experience of being in an adversarial position with another human being. This is rare for me, especially in public.
I couldn’t sleep, and I have been thinking about this experience constantly for more than 24 hours now. I couldn’t get over how pathetic and embarrassing the whole meeting was. Complaints aired in public, emotions high, and a very complex organization to manage with scores of people watching and hoping for solutions. It seems impossible and hopeless.
This having been my first attendance to a school board meeting anywhere, I can’t say how this meeting compared to any other, or how this school district compares with any other. Certainly the problems faced by this district are common throughout the country: funding is shrinking while legislative mandates expand.
In the middle of a long drive to work, the whole matter settled in my mind. The Central School District board has a public relations problem. Their reputation (as a collective group) is deteriorating within the district and in the community.
I compared the experience to what I know: publicly held, for-profit manufacturing companies. The school board is the board of directors; the superintendant is the CEO; the principals are the managers; the teachers operate the manufacturing equipment.
The school board meeting would translate like this: you invite customers, stockholders, and employees to one meeting, and then you open the mic to allow anyone to speak.
This would be a disaster in the private business world, in the best companies. A company’s reputation could be ruined by one bad actor, be it by blunder or bomb. A company with a contentious relationship with its employees would instantly fall apart.
The district has a big group of unhappy teachers. They’re unhappy about some important issues, and they’re looking for a place to air the dirty laundry. I went to the meeting in hopes of shining light on the issues, and I guess I did. I reached deep into the pile and got the stinkiest mess I knew about, drug it out into the public lobby, and hung it on the concierge’s desk.
This is embarrassing for me, for the board, for all the district employees, and for the entire community. Was it necessary? Maybe not. Was it helpful? Maybe not.
The real problem is this: the school district has no washing machine.
In a corporation, if management is capable at all, employee gripes are addressed when they reach critical mass. Maybe even before. But allowing employees to speak publicly about grievances and brushing it off as either trivial or out of the board’s control causes problems for the company’s image, and ultimately its profitability. Quality employees and managers leave for a more pleasant work environment; concerned customers look more closely at your competition; investors take another bet.
So corporations try to avoid this by developing specific policies and practices to resolve employee complaints before the spill out into public vies. Occasionally there occurs a complete breakdown of trust between a manager and his employees. I have been through this twice: once as the incompetent manager, and once as the disgruntled employee. In the latter case, the VP I worked for was fired by the senior VP.
In the former case, my manager sat me down and said, “we have to be sure this position is the right one for you, and if it is not, we have to ask, is there a position at this company that is a good fit?” Ouch.
In both cases, the issue was brought to light by upset employees who went over their manager’s head to a figure they could trust. Someone who would listen. Someone with the power, and hopefully the wisdom, to make the needed change for the benefit of the company.
In both cases, until that meeting took place, good employees were leaving for other opportunities, who might perhaps have been retained if they had not been put off by their boss’s actions.
So how does this process work in Central school district? I’m still asking around, and I may be corrected, but what settled on my mind this morning is: it doesn’t. It’s not happening, at least not above the level of the school principals.
Perception is Reality
When the meeting came to order, the room was clearly divided into two groups: those who run the district, and the rest of us who don’t. The superintendent sits next to the board chairman, and three district employees sit in the same grouping with the board.
You may think I’m nitpicking here, but I see this as a problem. It’s not a giant problem if the meeting is primarily serving as a mechanism to inform the public of the state of the district and hear concerns form the public. A united front is desirable in that case.
But in my case, like several others who spoke, I was there to complain about district management. So there is the guy I want to complain about, sitting side by side with the people who are supposedly going to fix the problem. It’s like filing a complaint of assault and having the perpetrator accompany the police officer to take your statement. At first, you are incredulous. Then, when the words start flowing, they tend to come out with more animosity than they might otherwise.
And, of course, the rumor is that there is a personal friendship between the board members and the superintendent. I hope that’s not true. If it is, then even separating the tables won’t help people with complaints take the board more seriously.
In my completely unstudied opinion, the school board’s jobs are 1) setting policies, and 2) overseeing the superintendent’s work. This school board has ruined its reputation regarding #2. They seem not to notice any lapses by the superintendent. At least from what we outside the board can see.
Talk to the Hand
The other thing that was obviously frustrating to the people around me was that the rules of the board meeting don’t allow the public to ask questions of the board, or comment on any actions taken by the board.
At one point in the board business (I believe it was the issue of how public statements should be taken in board meetings), a kindergarten teacher spoke up politely and asked if she could ask a question. The school board president put out both her hands toward the woman, and stated the rule: “I’m sorry, questions are not allowed.”
The teacher sitting next to me couldn’t restrain herself: “That’s the problem!” There were murmurs of agreement.
The chairperson allowed the question, and it was answered satisfactorily. (For the record, I am not opposed to this rule). This interchange was evidence to me - perhaps circumstantial at this point - that the teachers feeling of not being heard may be based on kernels of facts
I also noticed that the board members asked no questions of the speakers or the attending public. To my memory (not the best) the only questions that any board member asked was Mr. Paul Evans, asking questions of the district employees. How in the world can you understand a problem without asking questions? I certainly hope they ask questions in their private deliberations and in one-on-one conversations.
So if this board meeting was representative, and if there are not other times and places where communication occurs with the public and the school teachers, I completely agree with the teachers that there is very little communication with the school board. We made statements. They went on to other business. One item most complained of, the issue of the print shop’s reduced staffing, was added to the agenda. The board left the room for executive, private, session.
Three hours well spent.
One item discussed late in the meeting was a change in the school board meeting format in an attempt to improve their communication with the public. The idea was to have the board members split up in the meeting hall and hear the statements separately and then give reports on them in the reconvened group.
The teachers had seen this on the agenda before hand, and assumed it was an attempt to shut down communication. It may have turned out something like that, but Mr. Evans proposed to amend that plan to add time for open comment at the end of the meeting, for anyone who was not satisfied with the board member’s representation of their concern.
I think this is a noble effort. Much like buying a washboard and tub is better than sitting with no laundry service at all.
No, I’m not making this up
It was mentioned that a quieter way is being sought for the individuals attending the meeting to express their support for a statement or action in the meeting. Because we have no applause meter, a show of hands or sign-language applause might be better.
The chairman also suggested that anyone who wants to can email the board with concerns: “you have our email addresses. I think I’ve only received three emails . . .”
Today I went looking for the email addresses on the district website. If they are there, they are somewhere other than the “board” page. Perhaps the teaches have them.
Do something different
So, now that you have endured reading this far, here are my recommendations to the board for commencing REAL communication. I think it is important to point out how well qualified I am to give this advice: I have been to exactly one school board meeting.
1. Hear grievances in private so that dirty laundry has someplace to go other than the public board meeting.
a. Does the district have a grievance policy for employees to go above their immediate boss’s head to the next level manager? Do the employees know about it? Are they willing to use it?
b. Since at the top of the district, the Superintendent reports to the Board, does the board make themselves available, individually as well as in formal, private board meetings, to hear the concerns of employees?
c. The public meetings have an explicit rule that criticism of individuals is not allowed. This is a good, healthy, appropriate rule. But in private meetings specifics should be encouraged.
d. This kind of private meeting could be regularly scheduled or by appointment. At a minimum it should be held before deliberations begin on whether to extend the superintendant’s contract. Yes, even when everyone is happy.
e. No one other than the board members and the parties concerned should be present in that meeting. Obviously not the superintendent.
2. Ask and answer questions.
a. There must be a forum in which the public can ask questions of the board.
b. Refusing to respond to questions is a bad PR move. I know you’re busy, but big businesses typically do this once a quarter.
c. What is it that prevents you from asking questions of the speakers? Would you feel listened to if you make a grand statement and all you get is a polite, “Thank you . . . Next!”?
3. Post board members’ contact information on the district website.
a. Actually, in addition to names, phones, and email addresses, I’d like to see what zone you are elected in and how long you have been serving.
b. A picture and a bio would be very lovely, but probably overkill.
4. Continue this public board meeting as is. It serves essential purposes
a. It works well for citizens to make their concerns known
b. Everyone gets to view the workings of the public board.
c. It is the place to debate policy, strategy and direction.
d. If it is serving also as a place for employees to air complaints about management, it is only because the superintendent and the board are failing in their management.
5. Put the district superintendant at a separate table.
a. In public meetings, the district superintendant and employees should NOT sit at the same tables as the board.
b. This will be a visual cue to the truth that the board is separate from the district management, and provides concrete oversight.
But ya gotta mean it
If these kinds of practices are put in place for show, they will fail. Cloudy people will continue to show up and rain on your public board meetings. But if you listen and act in response to the concerns about management, people will know you are for real. Doing the right thing – even when it may be different than what the complainant hopes for – goes a long way.
In the case of Central School District, when behaviors of the superintendent change for the better, then you will begin to earn the trust your position deserves.